Hunger & the virus

13 Jul 2020

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AS countries tackle the fallout from Covid-19 on the healthcare infrastructure and economy, looming over them is another grim challenge: preventing death by hunger. In a report titled The Hunger Virus, Oxfam International last week drew attention to how rapidly the crisis triggered by Covid-19 and the ensuing shutdown of the economy could fuel hunger in an already nutrition-deprived world. “By the end of the year, 12,000 people per day could die from hunger linked to Covid-19, potentially more than will die from the disease itself,” it said. Oxfam, an international charitable organisation which strives to alleviate global poverty, said the Covid-19 pandemic is “the final straw” for millions who were already facing the impact of conflict, climate change, inequality and a broken food system that has impoverished millions of food producers and workers. It pointed out the top 10 “worst hunger hotspots” in the world, including Venezuela and South Sudan that are already facing a severe food crisis which is worsening due to the economic impact of the pandemic. Emerging hunger hotspots include India, South Africa and Brazil, where millions are said to be suffering from the economic fallout. Some organisations have predicted famines of “biblical proportions” as unprecedented quarantine orders and the sealing of borders disrupt trade and create labour shortages. Moreover, locust attacks in South Asia and Africa will threaten the already dwindling food supply. Oxfam also drew a parallel with big companies, which it said continue to make a profit, and illustrated how eight of the biggest food and drink companies paid over $18bn to shareholders since January — a sum 10 times higher than has been requested by the UN Covid-19 appeal to stop hunger in its tracks.

In this extraordinary time, the world needs compassion and leadership. Some experts have identified that trade is essential to advancing global food security as the world’s transportation system moves staple food that feeds over 2bn people each year. Restricted exports and limited movement of supplies will lead to labour shortages and food shortages in importing countries. There are already examples of countries throwing out harvests due to a shortage of farmhands. Countries must prioritise agriculture as an essential business and ensure that markets have an adequate supply of affordable food. World organisations and governments must work together to deliver food to vulnerable populations, especially women and children and those in conflict zones, so that the most at-risk groups have access to food despite restrictions.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2020